London museums: Tate Modern, Victoria & Albert

Over the past two days, I visited the Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert museums in London.

The Tate Modern is the most popular contemporary art museum in the world, and its collection is almost shocking in its scope and quality. It's enough to make you stop and think about the often untold stories of museums and their collections: how and where they got what they have. Normally sculpture bores me, even Rodin or Michelangelo, but I found the contemporary sculpture in the Tate Modern to be interesting. The museum does an excellent job of providing context for its collection. There is just the right amount of editorial and historical information. I was most pleased to see a large collection of medium-format black-and-white images from American photographer Diane Arbus, including all of her most famous images (e.g. Child with Toy Hand Grenade, Identical Twins, Jewish Giant). During the years Arbus worked (she died in 1971) cameras were met with more curiosity and enjoyment, whereas today they are more likely to be met with questions and paranoia. For the most part, people no longer enjoy having their photographs taken by strangers. If Diane Arbus worked today, I wonder what her portfolio would look like.

The coolest part about the Victoria & Albert may be its facade, which was damaged by German bombs during World War II but never repaired, the damage a reminder of the museum's perseverance through difficult times. Although I enjoyed the post-modern photography exhibit more than I would have expected, my favorites were mostly from the Medieval collection: a three-story French wooden staircase and facade more than 500 years old, from France, preserved and almost fully intact, but definitely not without wear; wooden doors with original ironwork, more than 700 years old; centuries-old Japanese samurai armor, gifts from feudal Japan, including one full suit from the second-to-final shogun. There was also a telling collection from Korea, its style and execution notably more primitive than the works of art from either China or Japan. It's my understanding that centuries ago many Korean artisans either chose or were forced to work instead in China or Japan, somewhat stunting Korean art and culture. But what remains uniquely Korean are its wealth of locally carved Buddhist temples and stone structures.

(Also worth seeing at V & A: The Ardabil Carpet, one of the world's most famous Persian rugs.)